Closing Mercy Hospital a backward step in quest to end racial disparities

It is inconceivable that a hospital that serves a population hardest hit by the pandemic can be allowed to close.

SHARE Closing Mercy Hospital a backward step in quest to end racial disparities
Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, 2525 S. Michigan Ave.

Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, 2525 S. Michigan Ave.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

If you believe “institutional racism” is a myth, pay close attention to what’s unfolding in Bronzeville.

Amid the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history, Trinity Health plans to close Mercy Hospital, which has served the Near South Side community for 168 years.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was born there.

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I got my first blood draw at Mercy (another story), and as a child was hospitalized at Mercy for a stomach ailment.

A granddaughter was born at Mercy.

A brother-in-law died there.

Trinity Health, according to its website, is the “leading not-for-profit Catholic health system with 92 hospitals and hundreds of primary specialty and care centers in 22 states.”

When I asked them to comment, they sent this statement:

“The decision to discontinue services at Mercy Hospital was not an easy one. Rising disparities in outcomes of health need to be addressed with preventive care. That was the focus of our proposed Southside Transformation merger and it remains our focus looking forward to the future.We hope leaders across the city and state will take the bold steps necessary to transform our system of care to better meet the needs of South Side patients. We are committed to being a part of that transformation.”

Bronzeville residents, particularly those in the nearby CHA Dearborn Homes, depend on Mercy Hospital like Downtowners, South and West Loopers, and North Siders depend on Northwestern and Rush.

“I live in Dearborn Homes, and the majority of the people that live in the area go to Mercy Hospital,” Etta Davis, a patient at Mercy, told me in a phone interview.

“We have over 216 seniors in Dearborn Homes, and a lot of disabled people who walk with canes and walkers use that hospital,” she added.

“In case of a trauma or an emergency, by the time it would take an ambulance to get to that person … we are talking about losing lives.”

Davis said she has been getting medical care at Mercy for 10 years.

“It was already devastating when they closed Michael Reese Hospital and tore it down. They were ignoring the Black community and our health, and they were just thinking about the profit that the Olympics would bring,” she said.

Michael Reese Hospital closed in 2008. The city acquired the 48.6-acre site a year later and cleared it.

We had to hurry up and scramble around and try to find a hospital because Mercy couldn’t deal with the overload. Now here is another slap in the face,” she said.

“It’s always all about a profit. Where are we supposed to go?” Davis asked.

State Rep. Lamont J. Robinson (5th District) wrote a powerful op-ed that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Friday edition, urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to “support a moratorium on any hospital closures in Illinois until the COVID crisis passes and ensure that all safety-net hospitals receive adequate funding.”

I reached Robinson on Friday and asked him point-blank what he thinks is really behind the decision to shutter Mercy Hospital when the pandemic is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities.

“Institutional racism,” he said emphatically.

The term doesn’t mean health care workers are overtly discriminating against Black and Brown patients.

What it does mean, however, is the health care system is structured in such a way that Black and Brown people do not receive the same quality of care as white people do.

Robinson gave this example:

“We know that after COVID, there are going to be health issues in our community, and where are people going to go for vaccines?” Robinson asked.

“We have an issue with trust and health care. But people trust their physicians because they have been dealing with them,” he said.

“You trust the relationship with Mercy because you have been going there for years. If your doctor says you should [take the vaccine], you are more likely to do it. But if the hospital is closed, you are going to be fearful,” he pointed out.

Roderick Wilson, executive director of Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville, has partnered with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization to protest Mercy’s closing.

“You would think this is about losing money, but it is not. They (Trinity Health Systems) made a profit, but they are not making enough money for their greed,” Wilson said.

“For them to close a hospital in the Black community when we’ve seen the highest rates of infection, that is the epitome of greed. They should not be entertaining anything like this. We should be investing in health systems in the Black community; instead, we are going in the opposite direction.”

This is what institutional racism looks like.

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